Staying Sober When You’re Surrounded by Drugs

Posted on July 31st, 2014

By Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

One of the most challenging aspects of getting sober, regardless of your drug of choice, is exposure to drugs and reminders of drug use in daily life. Alcohol, for example, is omnipresent. Characters in movies and television shows are often portrayed with a drink in hand. Advertisements make imbibing seem glamorous and unfortunately, many target underage drinkers. Substance use is often a reflection of wealth, good times, relaxation and socializing.

Young people have the capacity to be profoundly influenced by witnessing celebrities drinking and/or drugging. Musical lyrics that glorify substance use are legion. In addition, a newly sober person may be immersed in an environment in which family members and friends still use drugs. For many, drug use is part of their community. If nearly everyone around them drinks, they may feel like the odd man or woman out if they don’t.

While the ideal situation is that their loved ones and friends support their sobriety by being abstinent around them, that is not often the case. There are many reasons for that dynamic. Sometimes those closest to them are in denial about their own issues with substances, so don’t acknowledge the problems of the one in recovery. Many require education about substance abuse and addiction and the insidious cycle of which it is part.

Guidance for Loved Ones

A person in recovery can’t have “just one.” One drink, hit, pill or snort could very well lead to relapse. Non-alcoholic beer or wine is not an acceptable alternative, since it does contain a small percentage of alcohol and is a reminder for the taste buds and the brain of the real deal. Friends and family, please don’t offer someone who is sober (whether by choice or legal necessity) a drink or toke or snort if you know they are now clean. It is challenging enough to refrain when it is not present and infinitely harder if it is accessible.

If the recovering person is hosting a party, please don’t bring alcohol. For the recovering person, you are not required to provide alcohol for your guests regardless of previous expectations. Life in recovery is a whole new ballgame.

Tips for the Newly Sober

In preparation for being in social settings such as weddings, family picnics, sporting events or vacations where alcohol may flow like a river, develop a strategy to safely refrain from using. One technique is referred to as “bookending”which means you call someone (a sponsor or another sober support person) to tell them where you are going and then call again afterward to update them on the outcome.

Additional protective steps you can take include:

  • Avoid the bar area and have a non-alcoholic beverage in hand. Be cautious about putting it down, since it could become mixed up with another person’s drink.
  • Spend time with others who are not drinking. If there are small children present, being in their company would be a pleasant distraction as well as an opportunity to bond.
  • Enjoy dancing, walking on the beach, swimming, bicycling or other physical activities that have no connection with drinking.
  • If you need to leave, do so, without apology. Your sobriety is paramount.
  • Plan sober events with family and friends such as hiking in the woods, camping, cooking together, house concerts, pot luck gatherings, volunteering, gardening, and watching movies.

Staying sober does get easier and there may come a time when you feel safe being in the presence of those who are engaging in activities that once felt natural to you, but are no longer part of your paradigm. Be gentle and patient with yourself in the process. Reframe what alcohol and other substances mean to you. They are not necessary to have a life that is filled with laughter and joy, family and friends.

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